The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Florida legislature passes bill to restrict LGBTQ topics in elementary schools

Florida Sen. Shevrin Jones (D), left, speaks about his proposed amendment to a Republican bill, dubbed by opponents the “don’t say gay” bill, at the Florida Capitol on March 7, 2022. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Florida state senators on Tuesday approved legislation that regulates school lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity, defying demands from some of their youngest constituents and pushing the state deeper into the nation’s culture battles.

The legislation, which Florida Democrats and LGBTQ activists refer to as the “don’t say gay” bill, now advances to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). In recent days, DeSantis has indicated he is likely to sign the measure, saying it will shield Florida’s youngest students from exposure to sensitive topics in the classroom.

“We are going to make sure parents are able to send their kid to kindergarten without having some of this stuff injected into some of their school curriculum,” said DeSantis, who accused the media of misinterpreting the bill.

The Florida Senate passed a bill on March 8 that would limit classroom discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through grade 3. (Video: Reuters)

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The legislation, officially called the Parental Rights in Education bill, would prohibit Florida schools from teaching students in kindergarten through third grade about topics involving sexual orientation or gender identity.

Lessons for older grades would have to be “age appropriate,” which Democrats argue is so vague that it will stifle all conversations about LGBTQ issues. Republicans played down that risk, saying the legislation prevents “planned lessons” but does not ban discussions between students or prevent teachers from answering specific questions from a student.

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The measure also allows parents to sue school districts if they think their children have received inappropriate lessons. Democrats said that could result in a wave of lawsuits against cash-strapped school systems.

“I believe this will be another stain on the history of Florida,” said Sen. Shevrin Jones (D), who in 2018 became the first openly gay member of the Florida Senate. “Whether you disagree with the messaging or not, when it comes to people calling it the ‘don’t say gay’ bill … it hurts people.”

The Florida legislation is one of a raft of bills around the country designed to put new restrictions on teachers and administrators related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Lawmakers in at least nine states are considering proposals such as banning library books with LGBTQ content or prohibiting teachers from discussing words such as “transgender” in the classroom, according to according to Pen America, a freedom of expression advocacy group.

On Friday, the Oklahoma Senate advanced a bill that bans books from school libraries if the “primary subject” deals with “sexual lifestyles or sexual activity” or anything “of a controversial nature that a reasonable parent” would object to.

Within minutes of Florida’s bill passing by on a largely party-line vote of 22 to 17, LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida vowed it will pursue legal action if the bill is “interpreted in any way that causes harm to a single child, teacher or family.” The Biden administration also said it will closely monitor how the legislation is implemented, noting that federal civil rights law prohibits sex-based discrimination in education.

“The Department of Education has made clear that all schools receiving federal funding must follow federal civil rights law,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “We stand with our LGBTQ+ students in Florida and across the country, and urge Florida leaders to make sure all their students are protected and supported.”

The Senate vote followed two days of emotional debate in which Democrats pleaded with their Republican colleagues to consider the impact the legislation would have on gay and transgender children, as well as students who have two parents of the same sex.

Although two Republicans voted against the bill, most GOP senators countered that legislation was needed to clarify that it was up to parents to decide when and how their children learn about matters involving sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Growing up today is very hard. Raising kids today is so challenging,” said Sen. Danny Burgess (R). “In these uncertain times, our default position should be to trust parents to do what is best for their children.”

At one point during the debate, Sen. Dennis Baxley (R), a sponsor of the bill, suggested the legislation was also designed to try to slow the numbers of young people who are coming out as a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

“All of the sudden, overnight, they’re a celebrity when they felt like they were a nobody,” Baxley said as he described hearing stories of young people coming out. “I know parents are very concerned about the departure from the core belief systems and values,” he added.

Sen. Tina Scott Polsky, a Democrat, responded to Baxley. “There seems to be a big uptick in the number of children coming out as gay or experimenting, and therefore we need not to discuss it in younger grades?” she asked.

In a survey released last month, Gallup found that a record 7.1 percent of U.S. adults self-identify lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or something other than heterosexual. The increase was especially pronounced in Generation Z’ers who have reached adulthood, with 21 percent of them identifying that way.

In Florida, high school students who make up part of Gen Z have led the fight over the parental rights legislation, staging several classroom walkouts across the state in protest of it.

Mason Steinberg, a 10th-grader at Gainesville High School in Gainesville, Fla., estimated that three-fourths of the students walked out of class last Thursday.

“This bill would not affect me directly, but I have many LGBTQ+ friends who would be impacted significantly,” said Steinberg, 16. “People who were not directly affected by the bill walked out because they care about their friends, and will do whatever they can to make them feel safe.”

Will Larkins, a gay and nonbinary 11th-grader at Winter Park High School in central Florida, helped organize the walkout at their school Monday.

In an interview after the Senate vote Tuesday, Larkins said they were “really scared” that lawmakers had “validated these bigoted ideas” by supporting the legislation.

“Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to queer people and I hated myself by fourth grade. … Knowing that I’m different and not knowing why, and not having an explanation was awful for me,” Larkins said. “And knowing that we’re solidifying that into law is so disturbing.”

The school curriculum bill is just the latest in a series of measures approved by the Florida legislature in recent years that are seemingly at odds with the wishes of the state’s younger residents. Florida students have also walked out in opposition to looser gun regulations as well as a bill last year that cracked down on protests in wake of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

The leaders of some major corporations, meanwhile, are being asked to pick a side in the state’s increasingly bitter cultural divisions.

Two weeks ago, dozens of Disney World employees demonstrated outside the theme park demanding that the company speak out in opposition to the legislation.

Although Disney’s former CEO Robert Iger spoke out against the legislation, some employees were incensed that the company’s current leadership appeared hesitant to get involved in the debate. On Monday, Disney chief executive Bob Chapek released a companywide statement defending the company’s decision to remain silent.

“I do not want anyone to mistake a lack of a statement for a lack of support,” Chapek wrote. “We all share the same goal of a more tolerant, respectful world. Where we may differ is in the tactics to get there. And because this struggle is much bigger than any one bill in any one state, I believe the best way for our company to bring about lasting change is through the inspiring content we produce, the welcoming culture we create, and the diverse community organizations we support.”

Since DeSantis became governor in 2019, however, Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature has been moving steadily to the right by embracing divisive legislation that state GOP lawmakers in the past had largely shied away from.

Last week, the legislature gave final approval to a bill that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Later this week, the Florida Senate is expected to give final approval to a bill that would limit how teachers and employers discuss race and diversity.

During Tuesday’s Senate debate, Sen. Randolph Bracy (D) accused his Republican colleagues of engaging in a “culture war against the LGBTQ community” in hopes of furthering DeSantis’s political career. DeSantis has been widely mentioned as a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2024.

“I actually appreciate the discipline, and sometimes I wish our party would do the same thing,” Bracy said while looking at his GOP colleagues. “But in your effort to elect Ron DeSantis and send him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I just ask you: Is it worth it? Is it worth it if one child is affected by this legislation? Is it worth a child being outed or bullied or potentially becoming suicidal?”

Democrats are also outraged over comments that DeSantis’s spokeswoman Christina Pushaw made on Twitter last week. Pushaw suggested that only “groomers” would oppose the legislation, an apparent reference to child predators.

“The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as Anti-Grooming Bill,” Pushaw wrote, adding, “If you’re against the anti-Grooming bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4- to 8-year-old children. Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules.”

During Tuesday’s debate, Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book (D) and others lashed out at Pushaw, saying her comments were an insulting betrayal of the state’s LGBTQ residents.

“The governor’s communications director accused us of being pedophiles for being against this bill. Boy, oh boy, I got news for you: You can’t teach gay and you sure can’t pray away gay,” said Sen. Gary M. Farmer (D).

Sen. Ileana Garcia (R) countered that children have their entire lives to sort out their sexual orientation or gender identity, so there is no need to have “tough conversations” in elementary school. “This is not about targeting, this is about rerouting responsibility back to the parents and allowing children to be children,” she said.

But Democrats argue that the legislation will hurt gay Floridians and endanger the state’s reputation around the world.

“Who in the world have we become? Who in Florida have we become?” asked Sen. Janet Cruz (D), who noted that she has a daughter who is gay who was in the chamber to watch the floor debate. “I feel like I had a dream of a bad version of ‘Back to the Future.’ I mean, there is no time machine here. We can’t roll back 40 years; we are here.”

Rachel Hatzipanagos contributed to this report.